The Sound
And The Fury

A Critical
Case Book

Andre Bleikasten
(Garland Publishing)
One has to have a particular passion for torpidity to go into being a university professor of English. After all the honesty, interest, and excitement of learning have been honed away. One can get appointment to Berkeley, attend conferences put on by the scholarly associations in Vail or Bread Loaf, drink enough to float a batallion (Scotch with a little bit of Perrier) --- but not too much so as to get fired. With luck, and a certain ivy-league elan, one can become a tenured professor who specializes in 20th Century American literature, never get fired, and slowly rots on the vine --- occasionally bemused at how quickly life slips away, and how stupid it all is.

Given such a state of affairs, one could understand our reluctance to pick up "A Critical Casebook" on The Sound and the Fury. This novel is certainly one of the most exquisite pieces of writing in American literature --- not barring Fitzgerald, Anderson, or Hemingway; certainly on a par with the writings of Thomas Mann,Tolstoi, James Joyce, Marquez, Nabokov, and Molière.

Like Ulysses or Winesburg,Ohio or The Great Gatsby --- The Sound and the Fury invites one back again and again; and with each revisit, offers new and rich interweavings, symbolism, humor, blackguardism, the most deliciously wrought characters who have life and stuff and worth of their own. They grow, we grow: and the book helps to show the reason for our existence, and the reason for the existence of all literature. One day, Faulkner said later (on the writing of this book),

    I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers' addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write. Now I can make myself a vase like that which the old Roman kept at his bedside and wore the rim slowly away with kissing it. So I, who had never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl...

    I saw that they had been sent to the pasture to spend the afternoon, [he continues] to get them away from the house during the grandmother's funeral in order that the three brothers and the nigger children could look up at the muddy seat of Caddy's drawers as she climbed the tree to look in the window at the funeral, without then realising the symbology of the soiled drawers...

    For I had already gone on to night and the bedroom and Dilsey with the mudstained drawers scrubbing the naked backside of that doomed little girl trying to cleanse with the sorry byblow of its soiling that body, flesh, whose shame they symbolised and prophesied, as though she already saw the dark future and the part she was to play in it trying to hold that crumbling household together.

Faulkner then concludes in this essay (written in Oxford, Mississippi in 1933),

    I had made myself a vase, but I suppose I knew all the time that I could not live forever inside of it that perhaps to have it so that I too could lie in bed and look at it would be better; surely so when that day should come when not only the ecstasy of writing would be gone, but the unreluctance and the something worth saying too. It's fine to think that you will leave something behind you when you die, but it's better to have made something you can die with. Much better the muddy bottom of a little doomed girl climbing a blooming pear tree in April to look in the window at the funeral...

With writing like that, who needs criticism? Who needs those basketweavers at Berkeley and Indiana University and Texas State and NYU to pluck apart the skein of Faulkner's mastery and try to piece together something that isn't even literature, to tell us what is their (the scholars') skewed and flawed view of literature? Faulkner said, in interview, in Japan, in 1955:

    I wrote the same story four times. None of them were right, but I had anguished so much that I could not throw any of it away and start over, so I printed it in the four sections...I was trying to tell one story which moved me very much and each time I failed, but I had put so much anguish into it that I couldn't throw it away, like the mother that had four bad children, that she would have been better off if they all had been eliminated, but she couldn't relinquish any of them. And that's the reason I have the most tenderness for that book, because it failed four times...

All the quotes above are from Bleikasten's book. For those who love The Sound and The Fury it is well worth their time to read what Faulkner has to say about his "failed" baby. In the four different interviews he may occasionally repeat himself but he is telling us enough in them (and in the brief Introduction he wrote for Random House in 1933) to make our return to The Sound and the Fury that much more delectable the next time. For we knew, as we read it, because Faulkner told us so, that Jason was a bastard (He's the most vicious character in my opinion I ever thought of said Faulkner), Quentin a half-mad intellectual, Benjy the sweet innocent. The only emotion I can have for Benjy is grief and pity for all mankind, said Faulkner, later: the only thing I can feel about him personally is concern as to whether he is believable as I created him. He was a prologue like the grave-digger in the Elizabethan dramas. He serves his purpose and is gone. Benjy is incapable of good and evil because he had no knowledge of good and evil.

The interviews and writings give us all that, and if that was all this book gave us (plus a general A-minus introduction by Bleikasten) that would be all we know, and all we need to know.

Unfortunately, to make the work "complete" --- there are eight scholarly articles of the navel lint-pick school that are designed, we suppose, to give the book substance and depth. But it doesn't work. It is needle-dabbing finepoint, dipping into the Bible, Freud, lingual eccentricities --- even the words of Faulkner himself, in order to justify this or that interpretation of the book. Mostly --- the eight articles, alone or in combination, are silly: from the pompous The Rhetoric of Communion by Margaret Blanchard, to a most absurd reconstruction of The Sound and the Fury, complete with references to other, earlier works --- as authored by Gail M. Morrison (The Composition of The Sound and the Fury).

Great writing stands alone. It certainly cannot be helped by criticism by the fuss-budgets out of our university system trying to justify their existence; perhaps it is hampered, much like Samuel Johnson's famous swimmer who's damn near drowned with unwanted assistence. The study of literature will never have the scientific rigor of biology or chemistry or archeology. The literature needle-threaders may try to wrestle the whole of English Literature into the scientific position (bent over, fundament exposed) but it's jerk-off stuff, and we know it, and they know it, and they might be glad that the legislators who fund them so handsomely haven't found it out yet.

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he did and said many foppish things --- but one that made good sense was that the professors in the universities might well get off their duffs and stop writing long obscure articles on obscure points of didacticism. He opined that since we taxpayers gave them such fine stipends, they (the professors) might give consideration to spending a day or two a week in the classroom, teaching a few courses from time to time, striving to be good instructors rather than fancy-dan nosepickers. He was right --- but fat lot of good it did him (and us) to point out the squandering of what is, after all, a considerable dole from our hard-earned liquor, cigarette, and income taxes. He was shouted down by those who stood to lose the most (the teachers and their patsies) and there the issue rots to this day.

If his advice had been taken...but there we go again, wanting people to act reasonably with, after all, what is one of the prime privileges of living in a society where Education is run (as John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out) not as an intelligent bureaucracy, nor indeed as an instrument of learning and culture-but, instead, as a system so closely imitating that of the late Russian state that we might as well be frank about it and refer to it, yes, honestly --- viewing our manifold education operations (district, county, and state) as pure and simple examples of Communism grafted on the so-called American capitalistic system.

This leads us back to Bleikasten's book. If you love Faulkner, pick it up for the collection of his words which, as brightly-colored lights, must add to the beauty of the Christmas tree. As for the "critical" articles --- you are well off to ignore them, tinsel as they are.

--- Lolita Lark
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